Annual row over march of SS veterans does little for Latvia's image abroad

Fri, Apr 29, 2011, 01:00

Jews and Russians decry homage to second World War veterans but defenders say Latvians fought not for fascism but to restore their sovereignty, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

ON MARCH 16th every year, a dwindling band of Latvians who fought alongside German troops in the second World War carry flags and flowers to Riga’s revered Freedom Monument.

Many foreigners are shocked to see Nazi “allies” honoured in such a way, while on the fringes of the event, far-right Latvians hail the veterans and trade volleys of abuse with ethnic-Russian nationalists who claim the march glorifies a band of murderous fascists.

The day is a nightmare for Latvia’s leaders, who fret not only over security issues but the surge in media coverage that it brings to the small Baltic state – little if any of it favourable.

Criticism comes from an unlikely chorus of voices, from Jewish groups to the Russian government, which denounce this homage to a Latvian unit of the Waffen SS and claim it offers a glimpse of a seething nationalism at the country’s heart.

Latvians reject such suggestions. They insist most of the legionnaires were conscripted, and those who joined willingly did so to fight the Soviets, who had brutally occupied the Baltic states in 1940. They say the legion fought not for fascism but to restore Latvian sovereignty, and did not commit atrocities against Jews – although some of its members had done so before joining.

Moreover, most Latvians are adamant that the ultra-nationalists who jostle on the margins of the parade represent a tiny sliver of society, a belief supported by the minor role played by far-right parties in the politics of Latvia – and those of its Baltic neighbours, Lithuania and Estonia.

“I wouldn’t link the march to extremism, though in recent years it has become the day when all our ‘loonies’ come out – both Latvian far-right supporters and Russian nationalists,” said Nils Muiznieks, chair of the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

“Recent surveys suggest only 5-6 per cent of the Latvian population are proud of the legion.

“The far-right has tried to turn them into heroes, but they are not widely seen that way,” he said.

Even the National Alliance – which includes the nationalist All for Latvia party and holds eight of parliament’s 100 seats – is relatively moderate and has expelled members for making anti-Semitic remarks, Muiznieks said. “By European standards extremism is very weak in Latvia,” he added.

Moscow complains of discrimination against large Russian-speaking communities in Latvia and Estonia, and cites it as evidence of Baltic nationalism, also citing the European Union’s failure to deal with it.

But there are signs ethnic divisions may be weakening. The Harmony Centre party, which emphasises a multi-ethnic agenda, is now Latvia’s second largest party, and Riga has its first mayor from a Russian-speaking family, Nils Usakovs.

Gay activists still regularly face legal problems and threats of violence in organising pride marches in the Baltic states, however.

“These societies are very conservative,” said Muiznieks. “And Latvia’s right-wing loonies are very active on this issue – as are its Russian-speaking loonies.”